Historic appointment of Pakistani-American as head of MIT School of Science

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Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics, has been named the new dean of MIT’s School of Science. Photo: Bryce Vickmark courtesy MIT.edu.

A Pakistani-American was recently named head of the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as the first woman ever to hold that position. And astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala says she plans to indulge not just in physics and science, but to change the culture of the institution.

“There’s this idea at places like MIT that to be as excellent as we are in science and education, that has to come at the cost of all other aspects of being human. I reject that idea,” asserts Mavalvala in an Aug. 17, 2020 press release. “So part of what I’d like to do, and part of my vision of a better MIT, is to find ways for those things to coexist, in good balance. I don’t have any illusions that some of these things will be harder to do, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

Mavalvala, who was born in Lahore and grew up in Karachi, will take over as the new dean of MIT’s School of Science succeeding Michael Sipser, who served in this position for six years.

She is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics, and did pioneering work in gravitational-wave detection, when she was a leading member of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the press release noted.

“Nergis’s brilliance as a researcher and educator speaks eloquently for itself,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif is quoted saying in the press release, adding, “What excites me equally about her appointment as dean are the qualities I have seen in her as a leader: She is a deft, collaborative problem-solver, a wise and generous colleague, an incomparable mentor, and a champion for inclusive excellence. As we prepare for the start of this most unusual academic year, it gives me great comfort to know that the School of Science will remain in such capable hands.”

“We’re in this moment where enormous changes are afoot,” Mavalvala said. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and economic challenge, and we’re also in a moment, at least in U.S. history, where the imperative for racial and social justice is really strong. As someone in a leadership position, that means you have opportunities to make an important and hopefully lasting impact,” she added in her statement quoted in the press release.

In her position at the Physics Department, Mavalvala is credited with co-founding the Physics Values Committee made up of faculty, staff, and students which developed the department’s first values statement, that has become a model for other departments of MIT, and even  other universities, according to MIT.

Apart from pursuing science, Mavalvala has worked on initiatives to reduce stress and workload on students, faculty, and staff and on revising the Physics Department’s graduate admissions procedures to promote diversity.

A Wellesley College graduate where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, Mavalvala moved to MIT in 1990, for her Ph.D. in physics.

At that time, her advisor, Rainier Weiss, now professor emeritus of physics, was working on his idea of an interferometer to detect gravitational waves, i.e. minute disturbances rippling out through space from cataclysmic events millions to billions of light years away.

Mavalvala helped Weiss build an early prototype as part of her PhD thesis. Weiss’ idea developed into LIGO, the twin 4-kilometer-long interferometers that made the first and historic direct detection of gravitational waves in 2016, and won him and others the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.

In 1997, Mavalvala went to Caltech as a postdoc, studying the cosmic microwave background. In 2000, she joined on as a staff scientist at the LIGO Laboratory, where researchers were collaborating with Weiss’ group at MIT to build LIGO’s detectors. Mavalvala returned to MIT in 2002, to join the faculty.

Since then, she has helped to build up the MIT LIGO group, where she has worked to design and improve different parts of the interferometers, the press release said.

Among the numerous honors and awards Mavalvala has received are the 2010 MacArthur Fellowship; the LGBTQ+ Scientist of the Year award from the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals in 2014; and in 2015 she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, as part of the LIGO team.

In 2017, Mavalvala was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Carnegie Corporation of New York recognized her as a Great Immigrant honoree. Pakisan’s Information Technology University made her its first recipient of the Lahore Technology Award.

“MIT is one of the top places in the world for doing cutting-edge science, and we will continue to maintain that eminence,” Mavalvala said. “At the same time, we also have to push on issues of diversity, issues of racial and social justice, and of work-life balance,” she added. Mavalvala is also a parent of two children.

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